(Leave your question for Brandon here!)

Dear Savvy Traveller: Is couchsurfing safe, or am I just asking for trouble?

-Fiona MacKelter

Dear Fiona,

Let me give you the short answer first. Is couchsurfing safe? Yes. With most experiences in life, it’s not about what you’re approaching, but how you’re approaching it. Couchsurfing is no different.

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I don’t recommend you arrive in a foreign country, sit in the middle of town, and ask strangers if you can sleep on their couches. I do recommend you plan ahead by looking at sites that link similarly-minded travellers and hosts, and offer extensive profiles and references so you can investigate personality, interests, and reviews of both the host and the home.

Communities like these allow both the surfer and the host to declare exactly what type of person they’re comfortable sharing space with, and what level of interaction they intend to have, but the real value is that they are true communities of people sharing global ideas, not just opportunities for freeloading.

I’m partial to Couchsurfing.com, which I’ve used to stay in more than 20 homes (and I’ve hosted, too), because I find the profile and review features there to be the most extensive. In my opinion, this is your greatest safety net, so that’s the community I’ll be referencing in the remainder of this column. When I use a capital “C,” I’m specifically referencing Couchsurfing.com or its users.

Before I begin with the tips, I also want to make this very important distinction: Couchsurfing isn’t about need, it’s about want. Yes, there are plenty of penniless backpackers looking for a free couch for a night. But the vast majority of Couchsurfers are accomplished, globally-minded individuals looking for a cultural exchange.

At large, this isn’t a ragtag group of people who desperately need a place to stay, but a global community of inspired minds looking to share ideas and experiences with new friends. Understanding this should help alleviate some unnecessary hesitation.

Nothing is always safe, Fiona. But, generally speaking, Couchsurfing is not a dangerous endeavor, and the following tips will help increase your odds of an ideal experience. I’m going to assume you’re asking about staying with a stranger, not hosting a stranger, but most of these tips can be applied in either direction:

1. Read the references. Then read the references of the references. The best way to learn what a stay with someone is like is to read the references of those who have done it. This is obvious. A little less obvious, and a stellar feature of Couchsurfing, is that you can read the references of other people the reviewer has interacted with. This allows you to assess the validity of his/her comments, and to be sure this isn’t a decoy reference.

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2. Assess the history of everyone who stayed with a prospective host. If you’re concerned about safety, don’t take a risk on someone new to the site. Odds are it would be safe, but you don’t need to be the one who finds out. Look at the profile of each person who stayed where you want to stay and decide if you could get along with those people. If so, you’re probably going to get along with their common thread—the person who hosted all of them.

3. If you’re part of a demographic that has to worry about safety a bit more than others even in daily life, search for terms that describe yourself and stay with someone who shares those characteristics, or people whose profiles explicitly say they’re cool with them. For the latter, take the extra step of check their histories (tip #2, above) to make sure people like you have stayed there before and have had a good experience. This eliminates the risk that you’re falling into a trap—this is the internet, after all. For example, if you’re a solo female traveller, stay with women, or couples who have hosted other solo female travellers who left great references. If something about you makes you concerned for your safety, there is plenty you can do in advance to be sure your host is a comfortable match for you.

4. Create a detailed profile. Like surfers, hosts want to know exactly who is coming into their homes, and they want to be sure they’re likely to get along with you! If you have minority demographic concerns (#3, above), be direct in your profile. For example, if you’re a member LGBT community, you probably don’t want to stay with a homophobe, so make sure your profile directly expresses who you are. Hosts review your profile before accepting your request, and anyone who has an issue with you will simply decline you, but that’s only possible if you’ve been open.

5. Review the home. One part of “safety” you may overlook is health! Look for profiles that have plenty of pictures of the environment and detailed information on where you would sleep and what you would have access to. In many cases you’ll have a bed, so if you’re concerned about creepy old couches, you can rest assured (ahead of time and when you arrive!) by checking this in advance. Bathrooms are also worth investigating ahead of time when possible. Most importantly, look for references that describe the home, not just the person. We all have blinders to our own homes, but others who’ve briefly visited will give a more unbiased description.

6. Be direct. You’re requesting to stay in someone’s home, so you want to be polite, but you and the host both want a smooth experience so you won’t upset anyone by asking questions. Are you allergic to cats, or hate birds? Ask about pets! Looking for someone who wants to give an insider tour of the city? Ask whether they want to hang out all day, or if they’re just looking for a passing interaction. Honest communication is critical for a successful experience, and it benefits everyone. Be forthcoming about who you are, and find out what you need to know about a host to feel safe and comfortable. The greatest value of couchsurfing isn’t the free bed; it’s the chance to intimately get to know a new place through the perspective of a local, so go with your gut and choose someone who makes you feel safe and excited before you even leave home.

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 – For more of Brandon’s tips on how to travel cheap, click here!